Writing Backward: Modern Models in Historical Fiction

I expect we can all agree that historical fiction should be good fiction and good history. If we leap over the first briar patch by calling good fiction an “interesting narrative with well-developed characters,” we are still left with the question of what is good history. Alas, there are nearly as many thorns here as among the briars. The German historian Leopold von Ranke said that writing history was saying “what really happened” — but according to whom? Writers of history select, describe, and explain historical evidence — and thereby interpret. Not only will the loser’s version of the war never match the winner’s, but historical interpretations of what happened, and why, are subject to endless revision over time. A transforming event of the past — say, the American Revolution — can be understood as a social, economic, or intellectual movement; as avoidable or inevitable; as a tragedy of misunderstanding or a triumph of liberty.

Historical revisionism makes its way into historical fiction, of course, including that written for children, usually in response to changing social climates. Esther Forbes wrote Johnny Tremain, her famous novel of the American Revolution, in the early 1940s, when the US had recently entered the maelstrom of World War II. Forbes’s story took the traditional, Whig view that the Revolution was a struggle for political freedom, fought, as one of her characters said, so that “a man can stand up.” The parallel Forbes saw with a contemporary war against political tyranny was implied, but clear. A generation later, James and Christopher Collier’s My Brother Sam Is Dead (1974) and Robert Newton Peck’s Hang for Treason (1976) saw the same history through a different lens. Writing in a time of passionate division over a modern war, these authors looked back to the American Revolution and saw, not idealism, but the coercion, hypocrisy, cruelty, and betrayal that are part of any war, in any country. In the Colliers’ story, the success of the Revolution had to be weighed against the suffering it inflicted on ordinary people: “I keep thinking that there might have been another way, beside war, to achieve the same end.” Peck looked behind the heroic legend of Ethan Allen and his band of Green Mountain Boys and found more greed for land than hunger for liberty, and renegade tactics as barbarous as any tyrant’s. In Peck’s telling, Allen’s brand of irregular warfare was terrorism, not a noble struggle for liberty.

Revisionist history is still history, subject to normal standards of demonstrable historical evidence and sound reasoning. While the novels I’ve named approach the American Revolution from different points of view, they are firmly grounded in documented evidence. Different as they are in emphasis and attitude, all three stay within the bounds of eighteenth-century American social history. None ignores known historical realities to accommodate political ideology.

A good many recent historical novels for children do. Children’s literature, historical as well as contemporary, has been politicized over the past thirty years; new social sensibilities have changed the way Americans view the past. Feminist re-readings of history and insistence by minorities on the importance — and the difference — of their experience have made authors and publishers sensitive to how their books portray people often overlooked or patronized in earlier literature. The traditional concentration on boys and men has modified; more minorities are included, and the experience of ordinary people — as opposed to movers and shakers — gets more attention. American historical literature, including children’s, takes a less chauvinistic approach to American history than it once did, revising the traditional chronicle of unbroken upward progress.

However, amid the cheers for this enlightenment are occasional murmurs of doubt — and there ought to be more. Too much historical fiction for children is stepping around large slabs of known reality to tell pleasant but historically doubtful stories. Even highly respected authors snip away the less attractive pieces of the past to make their narratives meet current social and political preferences. Many of these novels have been given high marks: “an authentic story,” “fine historical fiction,” say the reviews. Many are on recommended lists, and some have won awards. As fiction, the accolades may be earned; as history, they raise some questions.

Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall won the Newbery Medal in 1985. It is a simple, warm-hearted tale, as popular with children as with adults, which cannot be said of every Newbery winner. The setting is a nineteenth-century farm on the American prairie, though exactly where and when is unspecified. Since there is no mention of farm machinery, and since there is a reference to plowing a new field in the prairie, the period would seem to be the 1870s or 1880s. Sarah, an unmarried young woman, answers a newspaper ad and travels from Maine to the Midwest to stay with a widowed man and his two children for a month. The understanding is that if all goes well, she and the father will marry. If not, she will return to Maine. She comes alone and stays in the house with no other woman there.

The realities of nineteenth-century social mores are at odds with practically all of this. It was unusual (though not impossible) for a woman to travel such distances alone, and much more than unusual for her to stay with a man not related to her without another woman in the house. Had she done so, however, it is unlikely that she could return home afterward with her reputation intact. MacLachlan has said that her story is based on a family experience a couple of generations ago, and I have no reason to question that. Even so, the story as told is highly uncharacteristic of its time and place.

Besides bypassing the usual social strictures of the time, the novel also glides lightly over a basic reality of farm life in the last century: work. More than work, in fact — toil, a word that has all but disappeared from modern vocabularies. Hamlin Garland, who grew up on farms in Wisconsin and Iowa in the 1860s and 1870s, wrote about his experience in A Son of the Middle Border. Again and again, Garland describes the constant labor of a farm family’s life. A farm asked a great deal of boys and men, yet women’s work, Garland thought, was even more relentless. “Being a farmer’s wife in those days meant laboring outside any regulation of the hours of toil . . . a slavish round with never a full day of leisure, with scarcely an hour of escape from the tugging hands of children and the need of mending and washing clothes . . . from the churn to the stove, from the stove to the bedchamber, and from the bedchamber back to the kitchen, day after day, year after year, rising at daylight or before, and going to her bed only after the evening dishes were washed and the stockings and clothing mended for the night.” Even when machinery began to lighten the men’s work, “the drudgery of the housewife’s dish-washing and cooking did not correspondingly lessen.”

While no one expects a child’s book to be a litany of toil, work was so central to daily life on a farm that one does expect to see it treated as more than incidental. As Laura Ingalls Wilder tells her Little House stories, the work people did are events in a child’s life, as indeed they were; the cheese-making and the building of a new door were as memorable for Laura as Pa’s fiddling. In Sarah, Plain and Tall, on the other hand, work is named but not described; somehow it is manageable enough to give Sarah leisure to lie in the fields admiring nature or making daisy chains for the children. And there is an interchange of jobs between Sarah and the farmer-father that is more New Age than nineteenth century. Papa bakes bread; Sarah helps to reshingle a roof and learns, under Papa’s tutelage, to plow. While none of this was impossible, neither was it typical. Division of labor on a farm was a matter of practicality as well as custom. Papa would not often have been in the house enough to tend bread, and Sarah would have plenty to do without taking up plowing. As for farm children, their work was essential and by no means light. As one woman wrote, “Sometimes I would lie down on my sack and want to die. . . . [But] it was instilled in us that work was necessary. Everybody worked; it was a art of life, for there was no life without it.”

Avi’s True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle was a Newbery Honor Book in 1991, praised enthusiastically in many reviews. A “thrilling tale,” one said, and that’s true — it’s a fine vicarious adventure story. It is also preposterous. The reader is asked to believe that in 1832, a thirteen-year-old girl boards a sailing ship to go from England to America, joins the crew of hardbitten sailors (all with hearts more or less of gold), performs surpassingly difficult feats of physical strength and daring under the eye of a villainous captain who hates her, and not only survives (sexually unsullied, of course) but becomes captain of the ship. Home at last, she tries out conventional life with her parents for a week or so and finds it restrictive — unsurprisingly — so she climbs out of the window and returns to her old ship as crew.

This is great fun, if you are twelve or thirteen, or if you read it as fantasy, but I have to wonder about the reviewers. Kirkus called the book “well researched” — on ships, perhaps, but not, I think, on probability theory, or even human development. Unless she falls off a mast or a spar or a bowsprit, Charlotte will be fourteen, then fifteen . . . and then what?

Catherine, Called Birdie (a 1995 Newbery Honor Book), by Karen Cushman, is a brave excursion into medieval social history through the diary of a fourteen-year old who questions nearly everything that governed the lives of medieval people in general and of women in particular. Birdie’s world seems real enough — it is rough and dirty and uncomfortable most of the time, even among the privileged classes. Her feisty independence is perhaps believable, as is her objection to being “sold like a parcel” in marriage to add to her father’s status or land. However, those were the usual considerations in marriage among the land-holding classes, for sons as well as daughters, and Birdie’s repeated resistance might have drawn much harsher punishment than she got. The fifteenth-century Paston letters record what happened to a daughter who opposed her mother about a proposed match: “She has since Easter [three months before this letter] been beaten once in the week or twice, sometimes twice in one day, and her head broken in two or three places.” As the historian of the Paston papers points out, “The idea that children . . . had any natural rights was almost impossible to a medieval mind. Children were just chattels, . . . entirely at the direction and disposal of their fathers.” If this attitude applied to sons, it applied even more to daughters.

Cushman sticks to historical reality while Birdie considers and discards the few alternatives to marriage she can think of — running away, becoming a goatkeeper, joining a monastery. But once her heroine agrees (for altruistic reasons) to her father’s final, awful choice for her, Cushman quickly supplies an exit. The intended husband dies, so Birdie can marry his son, who, fortunately, is heir to the land and thereby meets her father’s purposes. The son is, of course, young and educated where his father was old, ugly, and illiterate. Even granting that life is unpredictable, so fortuitous an escape strains the framework. In fairness, I think Cushman knew this; she just flinched at consigning her likable character to her likely fate.

And therein lies the difficulty I find with these — and many other — historical novels of the last twenty years. They evade the common realities of the societies they write about. In the case of novels about girls or women, authors want to give their heroines freer choices than their cultures would in fact have offered. To do that, they set aside the social mores of the past as though they were minor afflictions, small obstacles, easy — and painless — for an independent mind to overcome.

To see authors vaulting blithely over the barriers women lived with for so long brings to mind Anna Karenina. Anna’s is the story these contemporary writers don’t want to tell. When she left her husband and child for Vronsky, Anna suffered all the sanctions her society imposed on women who defied its rules. Whether the reader, or for that matter, Tolstoy, believed that the rules were unfair or the sanctions too harsh is irrelevant. Tolstoy was telling the story of a woman who lived when and where she lived, who made the choices she made and who was destroyed by the consequences.

It isn’t that contemporary writers of historical fiction do not research the topics and the times they have chosen. They do, and they often include information about those facts and about the sources they have used. Yet many narratives play to modern sensibilities. Their protagonists experience their own societies as though they were time-travelers, noting racism, sexism, religious bigotry, and outmoded belief as outsiders, not as people of and in their cultures. So Birdie, though she approaches her first experience of Jews with all the outlandish prejudices of her society, overcomes them instantly. So Sarah insists on wearing overalls when it suits her, and her future husband accepts not only this, but all her nonconformities, without question, let alone objection. A ship crew’s acquiescence to a thirteen-year-old girl’s decision to join them as a working sailor — in 1832 — hardly needs comment.

And so, too, Ann Rinaldi’s novel of the 1692 Salem witch hysteria (A Break with Charity [1992]), in which all the significant characters are outsiders, one way or another, and all hold views closer to twentieth- than to seventeenth-century norms. No sympathetic character in this novel really believes in witches, though many seventeenth-century people did. Cotton Mather — who indeed took witchcraft seriously — appears once, wrapped in a black cloak, an onlooker at one of the hangings and the embodiment of evil. Puritanism was, and is, an ambiguous, complex, enduring influence on American culture; to picture it as simply evil or alien is ahistorical.

Didacticism dies hard in children’s literature. Today’s publishers, authors, and reviewers often approach historical fiction for children as the early nineteenth century did — as an opportunity to deliver messages to the young. Bending historical narrative to modern models of social behavior, however, makes for bad history, and the more specific the model, the harder it is to avoid distorting historical reality. The current pressure to change old stereotypes into “positive images” for young readers is not only insistent, but highly specific about what is the desirable image, and often untenable. If the only way a female protagonist can be portrayed is as strong, independent, and outspoken, or, to take a different example, if slaves must always be shown as resistant to authority, and if these qualities have to be overt, distortion becomes inevitable. Betty Sue Cummings’s novel about the American Civil War, Hew against the Grain (1977), establishes her heroine’s strength as a credible result of wartime conditions. Her picture of slavery, however, is less easily reconciled with history. How many slaves this Virginia family owns is not clear, but the four described in any detail are all free-thinking and outspoken“Elijah neither looked nor acted like a slave” — and the two younger ones, at least, can read. The odds against such a situation in Virginia on the eve of the Civil War were considerable. More important, however politically acceptable it is, this kind of idealization glosses over the real price slaves paid for slavery.

What is at stake here is truth. It can’t, of course, be true, and wasn’t, that all or even most slaves and women rebelled openly, let alone successfully, against the legal and social limitations put upon them. Moreover, resistance takes a variety of forms, not all of them straightforward, some of them not even conscious. A literature about the past that makes overt rebellion seem nearly painless and nearly always successful indicts all those who didn’t rebel: it implies, subtly but effectively, that they were responsible for their own oppression.

Strength, too, has more than one face. As Louisa May Alcott judged it when she wrote Little Women, Mrs. March was a powerful figure, well in control of herself and what the nineteenth century called the “woman’s sphere.” Today’s feminism understandably disparages Marmee’s kind of power, but that doesn’t change the fact that it existed. For writers to impose twentiethcentury formula feminism on narratives set in the 1860s only ensures that their readers will not learn what readers of Little Women learn about the structures and strategies of nineteenth-century society.

Formulas deny the complexity of human experience and often the reality of it as well. Most people in most societies are not rebels; in part because the cost of nonconformity is more than they want to pay, but also because as members of the society they share its convictions. Most people are, by definition, not exceptional. Historical fiction writers who want their protagonists to reflect twentieth-century ideologies, however, end by making them exceptions to their cultures, so that in many a historical novel the reader learns nearly nothing — or at least nothing sympathetic — of how the people of a past society saw their world. Characters are divided into right — those who believe as we do — and wrong; that is, those who believe something that we now disavow. Such stories suggest that people of another time either did understand or should have understood the world as we do now, an outlook that quickly devolves into the belief that people are the same everywhere and in every time, draining human history of its nuance and variety.

But people of the past were not just us in odd clothing. They were people who saw the world differently; approached human relationships differently; people for whom night and day, heat and cold, seasons and work and play had meanings lost to an industrialized world. Even if human nature is much the same over time, human experience, perhaps especially everyday experience, is not. To wash these differences out of historical fictions is not only a denial of historical truth, but a failure of imagination and understanding that is as important to the present as to the past.


From the January/February 1998 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

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About Anne Scott MacLeod

Anne Scott MacLeod is a professor at the University of Maryland and the author of American Childhood: Essays on Children’s Literature of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (University of Georgia Press).

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